Science Fiction, Charles Dickens & the Comedy Podcast: A New Look at Plagiarism

Science fiction short story plagiarism

How would you feel if a short story you had sold to a magazine was photocopied and handed out by a college teacher? What if the magazine was defunct, and you had sold them only one-time use rights in hopes of selling the story elsewhere? That’s what happened to me!

How would you feel if a short story you had sold to a magazine was photocopied and handed out by a college teacher — or posted on the university’s website for free download? What if the magazine was defunct, and you had sold them only one-time use rights in hopes of selling the story elsewhere?

How would you feel if you went onto Reddit and heard a comedian read your work verbatim, without acknowledging that the content originated with you?

How do you feel as an author or content creator when someone just assumes you’ll be happy for them to reuse your work free because it’s “good publicity”? Those questions aren’t new, but they’ve been on my mind lately thanks to something that happened to me and a couple of fabulous articles.

I had bookmarked two recent articles on plagiarism and the battle for copyright protection — and then I got this email from my former literary agent:

“Hi, Deb — I was looking at the English 101 syllabus at (name of university) and came across this. There is no author’s name on it, and it’s just photocopied and included with the handout for a colleague’s summer classes. As I recall (magazine name) purchased just one-time rights. Did you license this to the university? If not, it’s time to consider a copyright infringement claim, I think, in order to protect your ownership.”

The story came from an issue of a now-defunct magazine, and the university most certainly did NOT license it or get permission to use it. When I contacted the professor, she said, “It’s for non-commercial, academic use. You have no copyright or plagiarism claim here, and I certainly won’t be bullied into paying a fee for something that’s free for anyone to use since the magazine that published it has been closed.”

Trying to keep my temper in check, I replied that the magazine did not own the rights to the story, I did, and that the magazine had purchased only one-time use rights. She hung up on me. The next steps are up to my lawyer and the university’s lawyers.

I was frankly astounded that a professor at a respected university would argue that since the magazine in which the story was published had closed, everything in the magazine was now in the public domain. Is that what she’s teaching her students? Yikes!

And that brings me back to the two articles that had me thinking about plagiarism before the most recent example of plagiarism committed against my copyrighted works.

Charles Dickens: Copyright & Plagiarism Pioneer

The first article was written by the great granddaughter of the fabulous British storyteller Charles Dickens. Lucinda Hawkins tells the story of how Dickens and other Victorian authors were plagued by American publishers who sold thousands of copies of their works without payment, since there was no international copyright agreement to protect them.

Hawkins wrote, “On a recent visit to the Dickens Museum in London, I showed friends from Chicago – one of whom is an author – the exhibition by ALCS on Dickens and Copyright. It provoked a discussion about how essential copyright is and how tenuous it has started to feel in our constantly evolving digital world.

“Writers, artists and musicians are feeling as vulnerable as they did in Dickens’ time. Almost every writer has a story of their work being devalued: publishers offering ludicrously low advances, literary festivals, TV companies and radio programmes presuming an author will always work for free because it’s ‘great book publicity’, and authors discovering that ‘free downloads’ of their work are widely available. Victorian authors fought hard for the creation of effective copyright laws and an international copyright agreement. Today, the member states of the EU are battling out copyright laws once again.”

She is right, of course. Why is it that professors at a respected university, noted bloggers, and half the social media users out there seem to think there is nothing wrong with “borrowing” other people’s work and sharing it wholesale?

The Comedy Podcast that Sparked a Plagiarism Debate

Jonathan Bailey, the creator of the fabulous Plagiarism Today blog and service, wrote recently about a plagiarism debate surrounding The Dollop, an American history podcast that is both profitable and popular, with a large social media presence on sites like Reddit.  Here’s an excerpt from Bailey’s article on the controversy: “The format of the show is fairly straightforward. Cohosts Dave Anthony and Gerth Reynolds pick a topic each week to discuss at length. Typically this is done by Anthony reading about a particular event in history and the two cohosts making various jokes, comments and observations as the story goes along.

“To achieve that, the duo use a variety of sources, mostly online. However, last week one of those sources was less than happy about their appearances. Alan Bellows, the founder and managing editor of Damn Interesting, a popular blog that itself focuses on telling interesting and unusual stories, posted a open letter to the writers of the Dollop accusing them of blatant plagiarism.

“According to Bellows, in at least five separate cases, The Dollop used stories that originated on Damn Interesting, reading them largely word for word, with comments and commentary in between. All of this was done without permission from Bellow nor attribution to him or the site.”

When the podcast hosts received the open letter, they claimed that their use of Bellows content was Fair Use, protected under U.S. copyright law, but they had failed to properly attribute the work to him. They said that they’d do better in the future, and Bellows seemed satisfied with their response. Bailey, however, explained in detail why he felt that even if it was Fair Use, plagiarism was the correct description of The Dollop’s use of Bellow’s material.

If you’re a content creator, or you use other people’s content in any way for your own content, I think that you owe it to yourself to read Jonathan Bailey’s Plagiarism Today blog regularly — especially his post on The Dollop/Damn Interesting controversy.

Doing It Right

One thing that the three examples of plagiarism have in common is that the author  has a right to profit from the content, and to control how and where it is reused (within reason, and without infringing on anyone else’s right to create a transformative work or the Fair Use provision of the copyright law) — and the infringing party (the comedy podcast or the university professor) has some right to reuse content created by others. So how do you know what you can — or can’t — do when it comes to reusing someone else’s content as part of your work?

The U.S. Copyright Office has an online service devoted to the issue of Fair Use. It indexes court decisions on Fair Use to help people understand how the concept of fair use is being handled in U.S. courts. I enjoy the site, but I admit the legalisms and ponderous prose make it hard to understand.

As Jonathan Bailey explained in his article on the Dollop/Damn Interesting controversy, fair use is a complex and nuanced field.  “It is completely impossible to know for certain if a use is fair or not until a lawsuit is filed and a judge and/or jury has ruled on the matter,” Bailey said.

“That decision will be based upon four factors, with the first and fourth factors carrying the most weight:

  • the purpose and character of your use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market.

“How exactly those factors are weighed and what’s decided varies and it’s easily possible for two sensible people to look at the same set of facts and come up with different answers, even two judges.”

For me, as a content creator and author, I feel strongly that by photocopying and handing out free copies of a complete short story, the college professor is committing copyright infringement. By doing so, she severely limits my ability to sell the story elsewhere — including to a college textbook publisher or anthology. Will a judge agree? I don’t know — and I hope it doesn’t come down to that.

All that she had to do in the first place was to leave my copyright notice (and name) on the piece, and ask permission before she copied it.

UPDATE: August 3, 2015 — I am lucky. A friend of a friend sits on the board of regents for the university where my work was misappropriated. I had a few words with the Regent, who had a few words with the Dean, and before 6 a.m. this morning the digital copy of my story was removed from the university’s download site. I also have an apology in hand, with a copy of the new hand-out for the article, which includes the correct author’s name and the appropriate copyright notices.  Instead of a fee, I asked the Dean for some tickets to an event at the university and some “spirit” merchandise for a couple of my grandkids who are interested in the school. It should be an interesting visit to the campus next year during their recruitment week — the Dean has promised a personal tour for my grandchild.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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